The Great Enlightenment had hit Polish Jewry last among the
major centers of Europe, but it made quick work, because Polish Jewry was not a state of
homogeny by any means. The assimilationists were the ones most directly hit. To the
assimilationists of Poland, the main 'Jewish problem' facing Europe during this time was
of Jewish cultural distinctiveness. To quote a inter-war asssimilationist, "the
Jewish masses were culturally backward and fossilized through centuries separated by
religio-racial separation." The answer was to eliminate that separation and mesh with
the general population. Thus, assimilationists hardly used the term 'Jew' to describe
themselves; more typical was simply 'Pole' or 'Pole of Mosaic faith.'
The assimilationist movement in Poland had started in the 19th century.
It was then cutting edge, but now, instead of go-betweens, the assimilationists were
considered against the general Jewish community in this nationalistic interwar period. It
is very difficult historically to estimate such a community, but the assimilationists
during this period were about 1/20 to 1/10 of the Jewish population, which translates to
150000 to 300000 people. They were mainly very wealthy, and virtually non-existant among
the working class.
The assimilationists formed a closed community, which was the center of
gathering for the families involved. Although earlier they had had influence within the
general Jewish community, most now accepted an estrangement. Among themselves, Polishness,
"European manners," and "civilized behavior" was celebrated. The
community had a great sense of romantic Polish patrotism.
Jewish traits were discrediting. During the 19th century, ridding
oneself of Jewishness was viewed as a necessity, and a means to an end; however, in this
time, Jewish culture was seen as completely inferior, and Yiddish a badge of shame.
The saying went, "To be Polish is to be Catholic." Actually,
many assimilationists did become just that, at least in action. About 2000-2500
conversions were done a year, both for simply pragmatic and assimilatory reasons. The
assimilationist community was never really allowed to be intermediates like the mullattoes
in Brazil, however. The Lvov Church Gazette announced: "For every sincere Jewish
convert we should have respect...But that does not mean that we have to accept them to
Polish society. Conversion can make a Christian of one who was of Judaic faith but cannot
maqke a Jew into a Pole."
The assimilationists clung to their beliefs despite the escalating
discriminations. A leader, Israel Cohen, said that he couldn't understand how anyone could
claim right in the country who didn't delare himself of Polish natonality. In response to
the wave of university anti-Semitism, E. Pechnic, wrote, "At this moment, when such
strong clashes have erupted, our task is even greater, for we mus show that we shall not
collapse, that we shall survive...we have to build the bridge on which people of the same
land and different faiths can be brought together."
Some did return to their roots, however. None to Orthodoxy, of course,
but many did go to the nationalism and hope of Zionism. A diary reads, "I personally
found myself on the border of two worlds, Jewish and Polish...a Polish education and
childhod, attachment to the Polish nation, to its culture and land. And spontaneously
there arose in me a love for my martyred Jewish people, its sufferings and its rebirth in
its own homeland..."